The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Wall

A pilgrimage evokes the believer’s personal journey in the footsteps of the Redeemer: it is an exercise of practical asceticism, of repentance for human weaknesses, of constant vigilance of one’s frailty, of interior preparation for a change of heart. Through vigils, fasting and prayer, the pilgrim progresses along the path of Christion perfection, striving to attain, with the support of God’s grace, ‘the state of the perfect man, to the measure of the full maturity of Christ’ (Eph 4:13).”  Saint John Paul II, Jubilee Year 2000

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In a sermon in the year 395, St. Augustine of Hippo said of Saints Peter and Paul: “Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; and even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day (June 29) made holy for us by the apostles’ blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.”

Both saints are patrons of Rome and both were martyred, yes, but Peter and Paul were very different as Pope Francis explained on June, 29, 2019: “a fisherman and a Pharisee with different life experiences, characters, ways of doing things, and very different sensibilities. But what united them was infinitely greater: Jesus was the Lord of both.”

St. Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles. His letters are included in the writings of the New Testament, and through them we learn much about his life and the faith of the early Church.

Born in Tarsus, Cilicia (modern Mersin, Turkey), Saul’s parents sent him when he was young to Jerusalem where he was educated and instructed in the strictest observance of the law of Moses with the famous Gamaliel as his teacher. A Jewish Pharisee and Roman citizen, he zealously persecuted Christians in Jerusalem. Acts 8 records that Saul was present at the martyrdom of St. Stephen.

Saul’s conversion took place as he was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christian community there. Traveling along the road, he was suddenly surrounded by a great light from heaven. He was blinded and fell off his horse. He then heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He answered: “Who are you, Lord?” Christ said: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Saul continued to Damascus, where he was baptized and his sight was restored. He took the name Paul and became an exceptional Apostle and missionary, spending the remainder of his life preaching the Gospel tirelessly to the Gentiles of the Mediterranean world.

Paul in Rome: In Jerusalem Paul was accused by a group of Jews of having spoken in public against the Law of Moses. Following a plot to kill him, he was sent to Caesarea Maritima (Acts 23:23ff) and imprisoned there for two years. Finally, since he was a Roman citizen, Paul exercised his right to appeal to Caesar and was taken to Rome (Acts 27:1-28:16, 30). Even though he was under arrest, Paul obtained permission “to stay by himself with the soldier who guarded him” (Acts 28:16). The area in Rome where his house was located is called Regola today and is very close to our Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupe. In Paul’s time, this area was inhabited mainly by Jews, and even today, it is close to what has been called, since 1555, the “Jewish Ghetto” and the Great Synagogue of Rome. Having “lived there for two years (about 61-63 AD) at his own expense” (Acts 28:30), Scripture states no more about Paul, and apparently there was no trial. Clement of Rome, however, says that Paul made a journey west and that he may have visited Spain, as he had intended (Romans 15:24), but we cannot be sure.  According to the Second letter to Timothy, it seems that Paul ended up in prison a second time in Rome because of the faith.  Where was he imprisoned? It is possible that he was thrown into the Mamertine Prison, into the cistern beneath it, called the Tullianum, claimed to be the place where Peter also was incarcerated. Nero was in power, and it would be easy to say that both were imprisoned in the same place at the same time, but we are not sure.

This time there was a trial and Paul was sentenced to death for having offended the emperor. Because he was a citizen, death was by beheading instead of crucifixion. The execution was carried out at a place on the road to Ostia called Ad aquas salvias.  According to legend, St. Paul ‘s head bounced three times on the ground before stopping and that with each leap from the ground a spring of water arose, producing three fountains (Tre Fontane). Actually, the springs of water were there long before St Paul.

Some ancient sources say that Peter and Paul were executed on the same day, the thirty-seventh year after the Lord’s Passion (Jerome, de viris illustribus). The year would be 67 AD, near the end of Nero’s reign. A small shrine, now destroyed, on a section of the Via Ostiense, between the Gate of St. Paul and his Basilica, was a memorial to the place where Peter and Paul bade each other farewell, embracing for the last time before being executed. Today, only a stone marker remains (Paola Ronconi, Paul in Rome).

The history of the basilica: The location of Paul’s execution was two miles beyond the gates of Rome on the road to Ostia. His body was claimed by the Roman matron Lucina, a member of the early Christian community in the city, who buried his remains nearby in her vineyard along the banks of the Tiber River.

About ten years later, Pope Anacletus, second successor to St. Peter, placed a small funeral chapel over the grave. Many Christians walked daily to this holy spot to pray at the apostle’s grave. In 324 Constantine built a small church over Paul’s tomb.

About fifty years later, however, due to the throngs of foreign pilgrims and a growing Christian community at home, three emperors, Theodosius I, Valentinian II, and Arcadius, between 384 and 386, razed Constantine’s church and built a much larger one, which is basically what we see today. It survived the attack of barbarians and the ravages of time until the summer of 1823. On the night between the 15th and 16th of July, the basilica was ravaged by a terrible fire caused by the carelessness of the workers who were restoring the roof. They had left a pan of burning charcoal there, whereupon the dry wooden beams ignited and quickly collapsed into the nave. By dawn, the basilica was in charred ruins. The nave suffered the greatest damage. Rebuilding lasted over a century, but the basilica emerged even more complete than before the catastrophe, for it had a beautiful new atrium. The restorers had reproduced the old structure as faithfully as possible.

The basilica was built and rebuilt to celebrate Christ’s triumph in the life of Paul. Let us prayerfully begin our pilgrimage pondering the faith of Paul that has resonated in the hearts of millions of pilgrims who have come to his tomb, and let us ask the Lord to grant us the grace of a holy pilgrimage.

Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts (1 Cor 14:1).

Reflecting on the art and architecture: We begin at the entrance of the basilica where we encounter a four-sided portico and atrium or central courtyard, the largest in Rome. The colonnade surrounds a beautiful garden where there is a huge statue of St. Paul by the sculptor Giuseppe Obici. In the corners of the colonnade are four large pedestals, three of which are empty. On the fourth stands a statue of St. Luke. In this great square, he is the only companion, and once again, Luke alone is with me (1 Tim 4:11).

It is good to take time to contemplate Obici’s sculpture of Paul, carved in Carrara marble. Here is a description of it by Fr. Edmund Power, a Benedictine monk, who was abbot at St. Paul’s from 2005-2015: “We are struck by the power of the enormous figure. It communicates an energy that is tightly controlled but on the point of being released with force. The sword that he grips in his right hand is directed upwards, towards the sky, but at any moment, without warning, it might swing down in a devastating, cutting swipe. In his left hand he holds a book. His head is veiled, an unexpected way of representing him; maybe the veil makes reference to the Hebrew tradition of prayer. His face looks down; his eyes are empty of expression, indeed almost blind. His face is tranquil but at the same time it suggests a subtle sadness.”

Father Power continues his description of the statue saying “that the sculptor portrays the apostle veiled, suggesting that he is a new Moses who brings the new law of the Spirit. Paul has seen Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus: now he must veil himself because his face shines with the uncreated light of Christ. In his hand Paul bears the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:7) …. Paul’s eyes see nothing because he has seen the risen Lord who is all, and in all (Col 3:11). Maybe the sculptor alludes to the fact that after his conversion Paul remained blind for three days (Acts 9:9). When healed of his blindness, there was nothing left of value to see: I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (Phil 3:8).”

As for the face, the Benedictine abbot says: “Despite the splendor, the power of the sword, the confidence of the stance, the nobility of the garments and the dynamic quality of the figure, Paul’s face is sad. Why should this be so? I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name (Acts 9:16). These words of the Lord to Ananias do not express a will to punish the former persecutor of the Christians. They are rather an invitation to enter deeply into the paschal mystery of the death and life of Christ” (Power, What No Eye Has Seen). The Benedictines have long served the Basilica of St. Paul and live in the abbey connected to the Basilica.

There are three main doors. On the right is the Holy Door made of golden bronze created by Enrico Manfrini and erected for the Jubilee of the Year 2000. It illustrates the theme of the Trinity. At the bottom of the door is an inscription in Latin which, translated, says: “May the gift of peace and eternal salvation be (granted) to all those coming to Paul’s Holy Temple.”

A wide door for effective work has opened to me (1 Cor 16:9)

Let us enter: Within the nave, we have, according to some, the most religious interior in Rome, architecturally. Here thin light filters through the windows of fine alabaster and the 80 granite columns create an atmosphere fitting for meditative prayer. The basilica has five aisles which add to the sense of the vastness and awe. Most of the nave was rebuilt after the fire of 1823, but much of the marble used is ancient. Around the walls are medallions representing the popes from St. Peter to Pope Francis. Only recent ones are realistic portraits. Legend tells us that when St. Paul’s runs out of space for these portraits, the world will come to an end. Don’t worry, there are spaces for at least eight more popes! Above the roundels are 36 frescoes depicting the missionary career of St. Paul, upon which we can meditate comfortably with binoculars. While we are looking up, we see the coffered ceiling richly ornamented with the coat of arms of Pope Pius IX, one of the restores of the basilica, in the center. (See picture below)

Proceeding down the nave, we approach a triumphal arch with the original 5th century mosaics. There is also another mosaic on the apse beyond. Let’s look at the first mosaic. The subject portrays the Apocalypse of John (see Rev 3: 21), with the head of Christ in a circular disc, severe and wielding the staff of authority situated between two angels and the 24 elders of the Apocalypse, with His hand raised in blessing, in the Greek manner. To the right and left are flying symbols of the evangelists. Around the edge is an inscription mentioning the Emperor Theodosius, and then Galla Placidia, the empress who completed the arch, and finally Leo I, under whom, in the middle of the 5th century, a long succession of restorations and improvements were made. The apostles Peter and Paul are shown below, the latter pointing down towards his tomb!

The gothic-style baldachino or canopy over the high papal altar is the work of one of the greatest Italian medieval architects, Arnolfo di Cambio.  On either side of the staircase leading to the papal altar are two large statues of Peter and Paul, so often seen together in the art and sculptures of the Eternal City.

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil 1:21).

Under the high altar are the mortal remains of St. Paul in a white marble sarcophagus. Paul’s tomb is the reason why this basilica exists, just as Peter’s tomb is the reason for his basilica: they are architectural cries of triumph in honor of Rome’s patrons. O death, where is thy victory? (1 Cor 15:55). The marble slab covering Paul’s tomb bears the simple description Paulo apostolo mart., “To Paul, apostle and martyr.” It was discovered in 1834 during the rebuilding of the basilica. The marble slab, dating from the 4th or 5th century, has three openings: a round one for the burning of incense, and two openings for pilgrims to lower pieces of cloths to touch the mortal remains of the saint in an attempt to obtain relics. In 2009, the Pope announced that radiocarbon dating confirmed that the bones in the tomb date from the 1st or 2nd century suggesting that they are indeed Paul’s. In a gold reliquary above the tomb is the chain that, according to tradition, bound St. Paul to the Roman soldier who guarded him while he was in prison in Rome between 61 and 63 AD.

The mosaic in the apse develops the theme of Christ as Judge who sits on His throne of glory. He is the Pantokrator, the All Powerful, but with a power and attitude that are completely benevolent. In His hand, He holds the book of the gospels. The page is open to Matthew 25:34: “Venite, benedicti Patris mei…” “Come, you blessed of My Father…  The invitation is addressed to those who have responded to helping all who are hungry, naked, sick and suffering. On His left are St. Peter and St. Andrew, and on His right are St. Paul and St. Luke. Below the main scene of the mosaic are the other apostles in two groups with two angels in the middle who flank the instruments of Christ’s Passion. Between the angels, the Cross stands in the center reminding us of the words of Phil 2:8ff Christ…humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.”

There is so much more to appreciate in the Basilica of St. Paul. I await your coming to Rome so we can visit it together.


Galatians 1:15,16 “But when He had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son to me, in order that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood.” In Damascus, Paul understood that God Himself had called Him. His response was immediate, complete and unconditional.

Just as God had pre-selected Paul before his entrance into this world to spread the gospel to the nations, so our vocation to religious life is a divine gift that God has prepared for us from all eternity. Each of us has received a specific call to follow Christ closely by vowing poverty, consecrated chastity and obedience. And throughout our religious life, we receive new invitations to follow Him within that call. Am I generous with Christ in each new encounter with Him?

At this point in my life, what is He asking me, through my superiors, to do? How is He asking me to serve? What is He asking me to change?

Paul became a servant to all that he might win as many souls as he could. He says in 1 Cor 9:19-22: “To the Jew I became a Jew…to the weak I became weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”  I pray to have a generous heart like Paul’s, to overlook humiliations or apparent failures that can occur in an apostolate. I pray that I can live even in difficult situations or to undertake any sacrifice for the sake of winning souls or bringing others closer to Christ.

At each Eucharist, do I renew the gift and sacrifice of self, made on profession day, uniting myself to Christ’s self-emptying (Phil 2:5-8) along with the particular joys and sorrows of the day?

Do I resolve every morning as I get dressed to “put on love which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14)?

Do I see my apostolate of teaching, nursing, or my life of prayer or my apostolate of sickness as an opportunity to make Christ known and loved? Do I have the apostolic zeal that I see in St. Paul no matter where that apostolate takes me? “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16).

St. Paul was an Apostle to the Gentiles; I am an Apostle to………



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